Does Realism Glorify War?

(Original Caption) Salamis, Greece: Greek Sea Battle. Battle of Salamis, 480 B. C. in which Greece gained an uncontested victory over the Persian fleet. Painting based on ancient sources.

One of the charges leveled against realism is that it celebrates war. This accusation is understandable. Where other IR paradigms like liberalism or Marxism look forward to a future without interstate violence, realism believes that such violence is an inescapable feature of the international system. However, it is also misguided. Although realists accept the possibility of war, they are actually less likely to celebrate it than adherents of many other ideological frameworks.

By its nature, war involves a great deal of death and destruction. Therefore, glorifying it requires that one make one of three assumptions. The first is that such violence is, in and of itself, good. To many people, this sounds absurd, but warrior cultures such as the vikings celebrated participation in warfare as a positive good, and in modern times, fascism made similar claims, asserting that war made society manlier and healthier.

This, however, is neither the realist position nor that of most people today. Instead, modern war is usually glorified in one of two other ways. The first is the belief that “we” are the good guys, and those we are fighting against are evil. Violence is usually a bad thing, but not if those we inflict it on can be portrayed as monsters. This is why World War II still looms so large in the American imagination. While the Allied side had its flaws (starting with Stalin’s Russia), Nazi Germany was as close to a living incarnation of evil as we have been seen, and Imperial Japan was pretty terrible as well. Thus, the war against the Axis can be portrayed as a noble crusade in media like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers.

Lastly we can glorify war in the belief that it’s being waged in order to establish perpetual peace. World War I, the “War to End All Wars,” comes especially to mind, but numerous other instances exist. Many of the advocates of the Iraq War, for instance, believed that the creation of a democratic Iraq would transform the Middle East, bringing freedom and peace to a previous troubled part of the world.

Realism rejects both of these beliefs. Although realists acknowledge that some countries are particular terrible in their domestic arrangements or in the way they conduct war, they tend to view interstate conflict as a clash of interests, not of good and evil. You fight for land because possessing it will bring benefits to your country, but you can still acknowledge that your enemies are not villains. Indeed, they are no less patriots than you are, fighting to retain those same benefits for their own state.

Realism also lacks the millenarian belief that conflict is coming to an end anytime soon. At best, the end of a war buys a brief respite but even this isn’t always the case; look at the numerous conflicts that occurred in the aftermath of World War I. Therefore, realists cannot glorify war as a struggle that will put an end to such suffering in the future. Interstate competition is constant and conflict will always reoccur.

How, then, do realists view war if not as glorious? Three words come to mind: costly, necessary, and tragic. War is expensive in both lives and money, and so states should avoid it if possible. Yet there are times they cannot do so, or when doing so would be too dangerous. Finally it is tragic. As far back as Thucydides, realists have acknowledged that it would be a finer world if war was not necessary. It would be better if states didn’t have to fight to defend themselves or were not incentivized to attack others in order to gain power. They just don’t think that’s the world we live in.

By paulewenstein

Professor of International Relations at Boston University and Wentworth Institute of Technology.

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